This column by ACRU Policy Board member Hans von Spakovsky and Elizabeth Slattery was published April 3, 2017 by The Washington Times.
A recent C-SPAN poll found that 53 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single Supreme Court justice. Some might claim this only shows that Americans pay little attention to the high court. But that same poll, as well as one conducted by The Heritage Foundation, also found that Americans understand quite well the power of the Supreme Court, its effect on their everyday lives, and the importance of the Senate’s vote on President Trump’s nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch.
Polling over 1,032 likely voters, C-SPAN found that 90 percent believe the court’s decisions “have an impact on their everyday life as citizens.” They could not be more correct.
The framers of the Constitution viewed the third branch of government as the “least dangerous branch.” But over the last 80 years, the courts have vastly expanded their power and reach into almost every aspect of our economy and our personal and professional lives — too often to the detriment of the balance of power that the Constitution’s authors were seeking to promote.
Moreover, 82 percent said that filling the empty seat on the Supreme Court was an important factor in deciding how they cast their vote in the 2016 presidential race. Today, they are watching the current nomination very closely — 71 percent said they are following the news about Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Those numbers help explain another finding: While 26 percent don’t have an opinion on Judge Gorsuch’s qualifications to be a justice, 43 percent support his confirmation; only 31 percent oppose it. Interestingly, 44 percent of all respondents said they voted for Hillary Clinton while only 40 percent voted for Donald Trump.
The data also suggest that the public understands that the Supreme Court has exceeded its constitutional role. The C-SPAN poll found that only 38 percent believe the Supreme Court acts in a “constitutionally sound manner,” while 62 percent believe the court is “split on political grounds like Congress.”
Certainly the hyper-partisan political fight Senate Democrats have waged against Judge Gorsuch has done nothing to ameliorate that view. After all, Judge Gorsuch — a highly qualified candidate who received the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association — was confirmed unanimously to his present post just 11 years ago.
The public’s preference for judges who follow the Constitution accords with findings of a Heritage Foundation poll. That poll found that 87 percent believe judicial nominees should have a record of interpreting the law as written. Almost the same proportion (84 percent) say judges should not write their personal policy preferences into the law, something we have seen in some of the recent federal court decisions against President Trump’s executive order on travel.
And 89 percent of voters want to see the judicial selection process depoliticized. Judges shouldn’t be used as political pawns. They are supposed to be servants of the American people with a duty to uphold the Constitution.
True, the C-SPAN poll showed that most Americans were not familiar with the individual justices on the high court. The most familiar name was Ruth Bader Ginsburg (16 percent). That’s unsurprising given her status as pop culture icon, including a Saturday Night Live character with the catchphrase “Ya just got Ginsburned” and news that Natalie Portman will play her in a forthcoming biopic. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas trail her at 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Not a single respondent could name Stephen Breyer.
But so what? Ask Americans to name the IRS commissioner, and only a tiny percentage could tell you it is John Koskinen. But virtually every taxpayer understands how powerful the IRS is and how much they have to fear from that federal agency.
And while they may not be able to ID the commissioner, they want that agency run in an unbiased and apolitical manner that complies fully with the law. Clearly, most Americans want the same thing in the Supreme Court.